A lifetime of racing against the to-do list

Me in my meadow

I’ve spent my life trying to get it all done. I have to-do lists everywhere, scrawled on the backs of receipts, in files on my computer, on the pages of countless legal pads. I have a planner where I write lists for each day, for the week, and for the year. If I don’t have a backlog of chores, I make lists of leisure activities. I am unmoored without a list.

I have always fantasized about what it might be like to live without a list. And then, five years ago, it happened. The pages of my planner went blank for weeks and then months. I felt a cavernous space open up. All the doings that filled my days, turns out they were non-essential. They fell away, and my family survived — albeit in a much messier house and with a lot of frozen pizza for dinner. The problem was, the way I achieved this list-free existence was by having a full-on physical and mental breakdown. When I clawed my way back, I was grateful for the return of the lists. They meant I was a fully functioning human again. And they were much, much better than lying on the couch Googling cures for back pain.

But now that I am immersed again in my doing life, I am beginning to realize that behind all these lists is a delusion: The idea that I am going to get to the end. And somewhere beyond the end of the list is a meadow where I am strolling dreamily, writing down scraps of poetry, with nowhere to be, nothing to do, no one waiting impatiently for my return.

To reach that place, I have to finish the ever-growing list. I must work furiously, for life is only so long and I really want to hurry up and get to my meadow. So I vacuum and grocery shop and pick up the prescriptions, all with the feeling of a wolf at my heels. I am racing against the list. If I can work faster than it grows, I just might win. Sometimes, when I remember to pause in the middle of my doing, I can feel the fear that propels me. It sits right in the center of my ribcage. Like a jockey, it cracks its whip relentlessly. “Go, go, go. Faster! Get to the finish line!”

I turned 43 a few weeks ago, and it occurs to me that I’ve spent the better part of four decades rushing toward some ill-defined finish line. A few weeks ago, at the meditation group I attend, someone said, “I told my wife the other night, ‘I think I’m almost caught up.’ And then I realized I’ve spent the past 60 years feeling like I’m ‘almost caught up.’”

I’m not ready to give up my lists. I’m still going to vacuum and grocery shop and wrap the Christmas gifts, and relish crossing each task off the list. After all, those chores mean I am alive and functioning, that I have money to buy food, a house to clean, and a family to share the holidays with. But what if I took the whip out of fear’s hand? I could do that by simply accepting that I will never get to the end of the list. And by finally telling myself the truth: There is no meadow except the one I cultivate here and now.

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